English for Visual Arts


Text type 1: Contextual analysis

A contextual analysis essay is a kind of work that disintegrates a piece of writing into small parts, analysing each one separately. This allows us to point out the true intentions of the author, and analyse the whole context. 

1. Write the introduction. 

The introduction is based upon what happens in the piece you are analysing. It will make people understand that you’ve found its context. You can complete your analysis by including some other pieces, if they fit into the same concept. Keep in mind, that context is a framework, which defines all the specific parts of the piece you analyse. So be careful while taking something out of the context, as you can be easily misunderstood. 

2. Describe the body of the piece. 

After moving on to the body of the piece you are writing about, describe the style, it’s written in, the theme, etc. Describe characters of the piece if there are any, or a problem postulated in it. Also, there is no harm in additional research to see what other people think of this. Maybe you can include some citations in your article (which is beneficial). Try using trustworthy sources, or get advice from someone with experience.  

3. Move on to the theme. 

What is the main theme of the piece you are analysing? Express your opinion on how the author influenced you through his creation, and what you think is the main response he originally intended to create. An important part is pointing out whether there is a specific statement in the context of the piece. 

4. Move on to style. 

Describe the style of the piece by pointing out some important elements. Does the author use first-person interaction? Describe whether it is a plain narrative, or if it is dialogue based. Describe the imagery and artistic methods that the author used, and the effect he is trying to achieve. 

5. Write a conclusion. 

The conclusion is the part where you express your opinion on whether the author achieved his goal. Try pointing out whether the piece has a dramatic impact, and whether it fully expresses the depth and the value of the topic discussed. For a literature piece, for example, there can be some discussion about the cultural value of the piece and its impact on the creativity of future authors.  

Citation style: APA (7th ed.) 

Text type 2: Art History analysis

formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyse the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, colour, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information? 

Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss colour and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss colour again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colours? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is grey, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the centre? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition? 

stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyses and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, colour, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass). The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc. 

Citation style: APA (7th ed.) 

Text type 3: Compare and Contrast Essay

Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of colour, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay. 

Compare and Contrast Example: 

Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’ 


Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc. 


Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc. 

Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6" 


Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc. 


Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc. 

Citation style: APA (7th ed.) 

Text type 4: Iconography

Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyse the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality? Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up? 

The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes. 

  • Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes. 
  • Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits. 
  • Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis. 
  • Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class. 
  • Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers. 
  • Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature. 
  • Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion. 
  • The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage. 
  • Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage. 

Citation style: APA (7th ed.) 

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